This morning, flying across the country to an education conference, I’m eavesdropping on the conversation between my two seatmates – strangers an hour ago, now steeped in a conversation about life and learning. He’s talking about transistors and electronics, and she’s asking probing questions, thinking in metaphor, and making broad connections to the way the brain works. He’s drawing models in her notebook as he talks, then she takes the page, and continues to question, covering the page with words. It’s a fascinating conversation and I’m suddenly grateful for this uncomfortable seat on this long flight.
Their conversation takes me back to the learning that I experienced at another conference I attended earlier this year. That was a gathering of more than 1300 University Professors and Educational Researchers from around the globe. The sessions offered a broad range of topics and disciplines, and although I am a literacy specialist, I found myself drawn to sessions outside of my field, outside my comfort zone. Curiosity is a powerful motivator.
At this conference, Sandy Gillis of Simon Fraser University in Canada taught a session on image and insight. There were only a handful of us in the room; Gillis sat in a circle with the participants, a marker in her hand, a white board beside her. Over the next two hours, she guided us through the process of solving mathematical puzzles, paying attention to the moment we discovered a pattern, or solved a problem, noting that we each felt a physical, visceral response in that moment. The puzzles grew increasingly difficult, but we continued struggling through the process until we would reach that moment of insight necessary for authentic learning to take place, a practice that has grown much less evident in public school classrooms over the past decade or so.
The following day, one of the sessions I attended featured a review of literature dealing with the process of concept mapping in mathematics, presented by Vito Ferrante of the University of San Francisco. He shared the pedagogical differences between expert and student generated concept maps, illustrating the research that shows how learning sticks when students make connections themselves. A concept map is a visual organization and representation of knowledge, showing the relationships among ideas. This is certainly not new thinking, but one that I’ve been exploring lately as I wrestle with the instructional shifts necessary to make the new standards, invoked by the language of the Common Core, meaningful and worth the effort for teachers. These shifts require a bit of faith – they veer us off course from the comfortable realm of the traditional classroom to the more uncharted terrain of inquiry and discovery learning.
These conference sessions got me thinking about the graphic organizers (a form of ready-made concept map) that we often give to students to scaffold their learning. I was considering how they might in fact be detrimental to the learning process, limiting understanding and disallowing insight. This thinking supports work I did last year with elementary math teachers where we were introducing students to the idea of equation without numbers based on the eight mathematical practices in the Common Core State Standards. At first we gave the students this type of organizer, _____ + _______ = ___________. In the second go round, when we instead gave them a blank sheet of paper, they began adding many variables and doing much more sophisticated work than just filling in the blanks (for example, a fourth grader wrote “rythem [sic] + sound + mucseles [sic] + mind + tap shoes – music = acapella (tap dancing without music. You ARE the music.) Students were experiencing the relationships among variables in a math sentence prior to working with the numbers, a process that supports understanding beyond rote memorization.
Back to the conference. When it ended, while waiting in line for the shuttle, I was eavesdropping on a different conversation between two college professors from the Midwest. I was struck by their passion and their intellect. One of the professors was holding a book, and I strained to see the title, which turned out to be Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. If someone so smart and so passionate was reading that book, I thought, it certainly merited a look. Based on her unspoken recommendation, I bought it the next day.
That, I think, is education in its truest form. We’re curious, we pay attention to the world, we act, we learn, we grow.
These days, all across the U.S. we’re working hard at making sense of the Common Core. I’m heartened by the lively conversation around instruction and student learning, but at the same time, I’m wary. There is much room for misinterpretation and misappropriation. The challenge for all of us will lie in how to foster curiosity, how to teach the art of paying attention, how to inspire students to act with intention, how to encourage them to be responsible for their own learning, and how to support an environment where we all continue growing as learners.
It is by no means an easy task, but it is crucial.
In the Wagner book, he explores many interesting questions and shares stories of the paths that led innovators to innovation. For me, one of the most innovative concepts is Wagner’s placement of QR (Quick Response) Codes throughout the text. There are numerous embedded codes linked to supplemental information, beginning with a short video clip of Thomas Friedman and ending with a link to a regularly updated website of information beyond publication of the book. I started thinking about the changing face of literacy, our broadened definitions of text, and the power that we could give students by introducing them to the idea of creating codes and embedding them into their work; for example, an argumentative essay with embedded statistics, articles, videos to substantiate their claims, much as Wagner does in his book.
Recently, I was working with a group of eighth grade teachers. They teach the book Whirligig at the end of the year, and they were thinking about how to make their teaching more aligned to the standards. We had done some work with concept mapping, and they started exploring ways that they could incorporate that into their teaching – perhaps growing a concept map together as a class, or maybe by letting the students explore their thinking and the connections that occur to them as they move through the text. They could start with a character, or a theme, a question, or anything else that they were interested in exploring. The teachers were having the same kind of insight in their collaboration as the afternoon wore on that I experienced in Sandy Gillis’s session at the education conference. They started concept mapping their own thinking and the room was filled with energy and wonder.
At some point, I mentioned the Wagner book and I explained a little bit about the thinking I had been doing with embedding QR codes into student work. A proverbial light bulb went off in Jordan’s head and she blurted out, “They could add these to their concept maps if they want. “ Two great things were happening in that moment:
1) A group of teachers were actively engaged in the kind of work that they should be doing with students – learning based on inquiry, discovery, insight, synthesis, analysis, exploration…
2) “…if they want,” Jordan said, supporting that foundational idea of choice as a motivator, and of doing the work that authentically supports learning, rather than doing an activity to simply perform on a test or meet a teacher requirement for a grade.
The work we’ve done with the standards to date highlights the radical shift in instructional practices that ALL teachers are being asked to make. We’re asking teachers to see themselves as scholars and researchers; in order to move their students to higher levels of thinking, they must engage in higher order thinking as well. This is less about materials and more (much more) about instruction. It requires time for thoughtful collaboration and inquiry.
Recently our district office received a box of materials that purport to support common core. Reading through the texts, it looks a lot like the same old same old to me. I noticed several short reading passages followed by a page of questions, with little effort to introduce higher order thinking or collaboration. As an educator, this worries me. Business as usual will not help our students become thoughtful, involved, informed, empathetic contributors to the human race.
These are exciting times in education. Our job is to live wide-awake lives, to pay attention (perhaps to eavesdrop), and to teach our students to do the same.